The University of Arizona

Ellis Island: Gatekeeper of the "Undesirables"

Rebecca Lange

Abstract


Following World War I, America experienced an influx of immigrants from war torn nations across Southern and Eastern Europe. However, due to post-war xenophobic sentiments, these “new immigrants” were determined to be highly undesirable for American society. The government and citizenry alike began to fear the effect these public charges would have on greater American society, and assimilation began to become favored over diversity. What was formerly the nation of a “melting pot” mentality became one that feared a lack of conformity. Through both government influence and citizens’ own prejudices, these national ideals manifested on Ellis Island itself. The overall result was increased medical detainments of the new immigrants without cause, as one’s potential in society had become intrinsically linked to medical health. Overcrowding due to these erroneous detainments led to unsanitary conditions, food shortages, and poor treatment of immigrants. Many of these immigrants documented a frightening, unjust experience, while medical records and commissioner memoirs confirm the unfair detainments and misguided treatments. Looking at both first person accounts and published works, this article analyzes how the immigrant experience on Ellis Island from 1910-1940 was affected by changing American sentiments at large, as well as other existing factors such as race, gender, and ability.

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